What is democratic backsliding and is the UK at risk?

Concerns about the health of UK democracy and the risk of democratic backsliding are rising. Meg Russell, Alan Renwick and Lisa James warn that MPs, who are the ultimate democratic safeguard, cannot afford to be complacent if we wish to prevent backsliding and safeguard our democracy.

Commentators, civil society groups, think tanks and academics are increasingly warning about the health of UK democracy. Such warnings often draw on the concept of ‘democratic backsliding’.

But what is democratic backsliding? And is there good reason to worry about a risk of it in the UK?

What is democratic backsliding?

Democratic backsliding is, in its simplest form, the process by which a state becomes gradually less democratic over time. Scholars emphasise that no cataclysmic state collapse or overthrow is required for backsliding to take place; instead, it is a gradual process, coming about through actions of democratically elected leaders.

Democratic backsliding has been observed internationally, and extensively catalogued by scholars including Stephan Haggard and Robert Kaufman (Backsliding: Democratic Regress in the Contemporary World, 2021) and Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (How Democracies Die, 2019). Such accounts generally define backsliding as involving the reduction of checks and balances on the executive. This might include:

  1. breakdown in the norms of political behaviour and standards;
  2. disempowerment of the legislature, the courts, and independent regulators;
  3. the reduction of civil liberties and press freedoms; and/or
  4. harm to the integrity of the electoral system.

Backsliding has been identified in multiple countries, with frequently cited cases including Poland, Hungary and the United States. Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party has significantly reduced judicial independence, and put pressure on the independent media. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán has repeatedly assumed emergency powers allowing him effectively to bypass the legislature, undermined press freedom, and – as in Poland – curbed judicial independence. Donald Trump’s attempts to delegitimise the 2020 presidential election, as well as longer-term patterns of voter suppression, have shown how backsliding can affect even very well-established democracies.

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The Queen’s speech, the Johnson government, and the constitution – lessons from the 2021-22 session

As a new session of parliament commences, Lisa James discusses what constitutional lessons can be learned from its predecessor. She argues that the government’s legislation and its approach to parliamentary scrutiny in the 2021-22 session suggest that a disregard for checks and balances, a tendency to evade parliamentary scrutiny, and a willingness to bend constitutional norms are fundamental traits of the Johnson premiership.

A new parliamentary session began last week, with a Queen’s speech that laid out a highly ambitious volume of new bills. Many of these are likely to prove controversial – including planned constitutional measures.

To assess how the government might proceed, and how this might play out in parliament, it is useful to look back at the 2021-22 session. This was the first of Boris Johnson’s premiership not wholly dominated by Brexit or the COVID-19 pandemic – offering insight into both the government’s constitutional agenda, and its broader legislative approach. Since becoming Prime Minister, Johnson has been accused of a disregard for checks and balances, a tendency to evade parliamentary scrutiny, and a willingness to bend constitutional norms. In earlier sessions, his supporters could blame the exigencies of Brexit and the pandemic – citing the need for rapid action in the face of fast-moving situations. But the government’s legislation and its approach to parliamentary scrutiny in the 2021-22 session suggest that these are more fundamental traits of the Johnson premiership. And whilst Johnson has thus far been successful in passing his constitutional legislation, his rocky relationships with both MPs and peers mean that he may face greater difficulties in the future.

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Riding the populist wave: the UK Conservatives and the constitution

At a recent Constitution Unit event (available in video and podcast form), Tim Bale discussed the challenges posed to mainstream conservatism by the recent rise in successful populist politicians. Here, he sets out those challenges, how conservatives have traditionally faced them, and concludes that the UK Conservative Party is so determined to ‘unite the right’ and supress support for a challenger party that it risks transmogrifying into a populist radical right party.

A few weeks ago I was diagnosed with costochondritis – a minor and surprisingly common condition involving the cartilage that joins your ribs to your sternum but which produces chest pains that make some people suffering from it worry they’re having a heart attack.

The standard treatment is to take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen. For me this presented a bit of a dilemma. Like many other people, I don’t tolerate ibuprofen: it irritates my gastrointestinal tract – something I’m wise to avoid doing because I also suffer from something called Barrett’s oesophagus, which, if you’re unlucky, can turn cancerous. So, on the assumption that the costochondritis would eventually resolve itself, and given the fact that the discomfort involved was irritating but far from overwhelming, I decided just to put up with it.

I’m sharing this bit of my recent medical history not because I particularly enjoy talking about it but because it produces a useful analogy for a question that I want to ask – namely, are politicians on the mainstream right so concerned about countering the rise of populist radical right parties that they end up proposing things that risk doing more harm to society and to the polity than if they were simply to admit that those parties are now a normal rather than a pathological feature of contemporary politics?

The background to this is the book I’ve recently co-edited with Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, called Riding the Populist Wave: Europe’s Mainstream Right in Crisis. We look at how mainstream right parties – which aren’t written about anywhere near as much as their counterparts on the left or, indeed, on the far right – have handled (or in some cases failed to handle) some of the challenges that they’ve been facing for the last three or four decades. Over that time, they’ve suffered significant electoral decline, although, as we show in the book, the extent of that decline varies not just between countries but between party families, with Christian democratic parties suffering more than conservative parties, which, in turn, have suffered more than (market) liberal parties, which have actually managed to hold pretty steady.

We argue that the difficulties they’ve faced are partly down to their having to cope with something of a double whammy.

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Reforming elections: assessing the government’s proposals

In September, the Constitution Unit hosted a distinguished panel of experts to discuss the government’s plans for reforming election law, as set out in the Elections Bill and draft Online Safety Bill. Tom Fieldhouse summarises the discussion.

The Elections Bill, and the draft Online Safety Bill are two important parts of the government’s reform agenda which, in their current form, stand to significantly alter the UK’s constitutional landscape.

With the Elections Bill making its way through parliament, and the draft Online Safety Bill undergoing pre-legislative scrutiny, the Constitution Unit hosted a webinar on 23 September entitled Reforming elections: assessing the government’s proposals. The event was chaired by the Unit’s Deputy Director, Professor Alan Renwick, and heard from four expert speakers: Louise Edwards, Deputy Director of Regulation at the Electoral Commission; Laura Lock, Deputy Chief Executive of the Association of Electoral Administrators; Justin Fisher, Professor of Political Science and Director of the Policy Unit at Brunel University; and, Baroness (Nicky) Morgan of Cotes, former Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (2019–20) – now a Conservative peer and Vice Chair of the APPG on Digital Regulation and Responsibility.

The summaries below are presented in the order of the speakers’ contributions. The full event, including the Q&A, is available on our YouTube page.

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The Elections Bill’s proposals on Electoral Commission governance: risks to electoral integrity and devolution

The Elections Bill has been subject to both criticism and praise, as discussed by Emilia Cieslak on this blog, and a panel of experts at a recent Unit seminar. In this post, Unit Deputy Director Alan Renwick identifies the threats to electoral integrity and devolution posed by the clauses of the bill that propose changes to the governance of the Electoral Commission.

The Elections Bill, currently before parliament, seeks to change many aspects of electoral law. Provisions to introduce voter ID requirements at polling stations have garnered most attention. But changes to the governance of the Electoral Commission also raise serious concerns. As currently formulated, they threaten both to weaken the vital independence of the elections watchdog and to violate the principles of the devolution settlement in Scotland and Wales.

Electoral Commission governance: principles and current practice

The Electoral Commission carries out a range of functions in overseeing elections and referendums and regulating campaign spending. As I have argued previously – in common with many others, not least the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) in a report published in July – the independence of the elections watchdog is vital to electoral integrity. If the government of the day can skew election or referendum conduct to suit its own ends, fairness – and thus democracy – is undermined. The Electoral Commission should, of course, be accountable too. An appropriate balance of independence and accountability is needed.

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